Mia Brownell’s Paintings
Kenneth Bendiner

Serious still-life food paintings first appeared in Europe in the 16th century and developed into a major category of subject in the 17th century, particularly in the Netherlands. Food images whet appetites and played with notions of both physical pleasure and health. Symbols of death and decay would frequently appear in the savory paintings of such specialists in the genre as Pieter Claesz. and Abraham van Beyeren, but those warnings of our mortality never quite overwhelm the sensation of bodily delight. And the importance of food as medicine, as robust nourishment, further promoted the powerful sense of well-being expressed in images of markets and tables overflowing with goodies. Mia Brownell’s paintings continue and enrich these traditions.

Brownell, like her artistic forebears, couples pleasure with physical science. Earlier artists placed complimentary foods side by side in meal and kitchen paintings, envisioning a diet balanced in accordance with the ancient medical prescriptions of Hippocrates and Galen (e.g., warm and moist foods should be accompanied by cool and dry foods to attain good health). But Brownell prefers modern science to ancient conceptions of the body’s four humors and their proper balance. She entwines luscious grapes and strawberries with Watson and Crick’s double helix, circulatory systems, and planetary orbits. She meditates on the stuff we eat, the role of food as corporeal necessity and as delicious excitement.

Fruit has been the most frequent subject of food paintings ever since Caravaggio painted a basket of pears and apples and grapes around the year 1600. Fruit possessed forceful symbolic meanings (e.g., Eve’s apple, the wine of Catholic communion, the sexuality of figs), but fruit was also brilliantly beautiful. People displayed bowls of fruit as they would vases of flowers—as objects of visual delight. Brownell’s colorful objects never lose their identities as artistically handsome creations, no matter how much they spiral into the diagrams of biology or astronomy. In fact, the symmetry and order of her depictions of food can almost look like wallpaper patterns, spreading fields of roomful contentment. The more recent fruit pictures display none of the slightly queasy qualities of Brownell’s earlier organ and poultry images. Her chicken-wing series of 2000---looking like the action photos of Muybridge and Marey in the late 19th century--- lead to thoughts of emotionless autopsies, and “Dinner for One: My Olestra Fantasy” plays with the forms of slimy human innards. The fruit paintings, in contrast, speak of beauty and taste without inner distress.

Brownell’s animated fruit images suggest growth and change. The small fruits writhe and multiply, coalesce and disperse, and vibrate like digestive peristalsis. These mergers of science and pleasing sustenance create visions of constant movement, as if the life of ourselves and the stuff we eat were a continuous reproductive dance. The plain backgrounds place the food in uncertain contexts---inside ourselves, under a microscope, in the heavens, spreading like water or ant colonies on the ground. The paintings are in every case hymns to a pulsing life force. In front of these works, we’re not in the supermarket or at lunch. The powerful symmetrical structure and textbook-illustration analogies of these images imply grander meanings. Brownell’s paintings make us aware that our daily acts of consumption link us to the fundamental schemes of the natural universe.




Kenneth Bendiner
Prof. of Art History
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

Kenneth Bendiner was born in New York in 1947, received his BA in 1969 from the University of Michigan, and his PhD from Columbia University in 1979. He is the author of Food in Painting from the Renaissance to the Present (London: Reaktion Books, 2004). He has also published three books on English Victorian art, and articles in various journals on Whistler, Manet, Matisse, De Chirico, Rauschenberg, and other 19th- and 20th-century artists. Bendiner is professor of art history at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where he has taught since 1985.